When news broke in late July that the trust company was exploring a sale of the historic candy company, just about everybody thought it was a done deal. It was the classic struggle of the everyman-vs.-the corporate behemoth.
A week after the announcement, more than 500 people gathered in Chocolatetown Square to rally against the sale. As they marched more than a half-mile down East Chocolate Avenue, some protesters carried signs proclaiming “Derail the sale” and “Milton’s dream has become a nightmare.”
From that moment on, the trust company board felt intense, constant pressure from Hershey supporters near and far, as well as some of Pennsylvania’s most powerful political leaders.
After a month of loud public protests, state Attorney General Mike Fisher took the first official step toward ending the potential sale of the company by taking the trust company to court.
Fisher, who was running as the Republican candidate for governor, carried the torch for sale opponents despite revelations that his deputies had urged the trust company board to sell Hershey Foods.
“I think the fact that it was an election year, that certainly played a significant part,” said Tom Davis, president of Friends of Hershey Foods, a community action group founded to stop the sale. “Fisher was up for governor, and he had to be careful to try to secure his Republican base here.”
In the end, the trust company board backed away from a sale, rejecting two bids for Hershey Foods — one from Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. and a joint offer from Europe’s Cadbury Schweppes and Nestle SA.
Damage was done:
The damage was done, however.
The public’s anger and resentment toward the trust company board continued to burn hotter by the day. Calls for the board’s ouster grew louder and more frequent, with more than 8,000 people signing a petition to remove the members.
Their persistence paid off on Nov. 14, when the board reorganized itself as part of an agreement with the attorney general’s office and the court. Ten of the 17 board members lost their seats, including all seven who voted in September to continue with the sale of Hershey Foods.
And William L. Lepley, the embattled chief of Milton Hershey School, retired early as part of the agreement. He has been replaced by MHS alumnus John O’Brien, who is interim president.
“We stopped the sale, the board has been re-formed and the Milton Hershey School is under new leadership,” Davis said. “We’re three-for-three. We got more than we ever dreamed of getting.”
New lease on life:
As Hershey enters 2003, it prepares to celebrate its centennial — the 100th anniversary of the ground-breaking for the Hershey Chocolate factory. The factory was, and is, the foundation for the Hershey of today.
“Next year is a real opportunity,” said J. Bruce McKinney, former chief executive officer of Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Co. “The Hershey entities are poised for greatness. I’m optimistic that we are now in a new era.”
The possible sale of Hershey Foods reached far beyond Derry Twp., but it was a particularly important issue to many midstaters.
Sandy Gaffney of Middletown said she and her family spend much of their time in Hershey and are thinking about moving there.
She said the midstate community can now breathe a collective sigh of relief now that the sale of the company has been averted.
“I think people will rest a lot easier now,” she said. “I think it’s an answer to a lot of prayers.”
Others say they have seen change sweep the Hershey area since the sale crisis ended. Taylor said Hershey has “a new lease on life.”
“I just have this real sense of community, and it’s more like the community that Mr. Hershey envisioned,” Taylor said. “In my life, I have not seen or heard of all of the Hershey entities working together. Now, they are.
“I think we’re finding out that we really do have a community spirit here.”